From Inception to Exquisite Porcelain

First and foremost, the making of TreasureDoll has been a sort of obsession, not just a passion. I say this because from its inception there has hardly been a day when I did not think about it in one way or another. It is both good and bad - good because I'm continuously motivated, thinking, and coming up with ideas, bad because I think about it so much that I even work out details subconsciously in my dreams.

A TreasureDoll is created from 19 to 21 porcelain pieces, poured using the finest porcelain clay. Each head is re-sculpted and refined in greenware stage, so each face is unique and one of a kind. The hands and feet are also individually re-sculpted and detailed to give them realism. Then all pieces are cleaned, polished, and together fired to a soft bisque, after which further refining, polishing, and perfecting is done before the second firing that transforms them to gorgeous, semi-translucent, and extreme strong porcelain. Using skillful and delicate brushstrokes the porcelain pieces are painted with several layers of china paint (finely ground glass and mineral compounds) with firing after each layer to chemically bond it to the porcelain. Each joint opening is lined with leather and the entire doll assembled using steel springs to create a joint system that allows for smoothness of motion and extensive movement. From design to completion, each doll requires several hundred hours and is a work of vision, skill, and patience.

1. Sketching, measuring, making the blueprint

The porcelain making endeavor requires a great deal of planning, visualizing, and measuring at every step of the process to ensure that all work and effort will not be in vain. A mistake made in the initial stage will come back and haunt you in a later stage, and will often involve going back to the original design and re-making pieces of a prototype, and hence re-making the corresponding molds.

To bring my ideas and visions to life, I first created blueprints for a 3-dimensional form, with measurements, proportions, sizes, and accounting for shrinkage. I think during this early stage, I drew a great deal on my knowledge of geometry and human anatomy because they allowed me achieve realism and proportion in my design. There was a lot of problem solving involved in the early stages and the most difficult part was trying to figure out, visualize, and test, to see if everything would work in a prototype and if the final size would be just right after shrinkage.

2. Sculpting the head and body prototype

My early attempt at sculpting the prototype was met with many setbacks, especially with the malleability of the clays. After about two month of searching and testing I finally found a polymer clay that met my needs and allowed me to achieve the results I wanted. As inspiration for sculpting the head, I researched and collected images of faces that I adore, some of real people, others of drawings or paintings I admire. I tried to capture the essence of their beauty and outline of the features and they became the basis for the general head sculpt of TreasureDoll. In actuality each head is entirely re-sculpted and detailed while in greenware stage to give the face uniqueness.

The various body pieces were actually quite difficult and time consuming to sculpt. For me the best starting point was with making the spheres (joints) of various sizes using polymer clay by rolling them between my palms, and this trick worked wonderfully well as I was able to obtain near perfect spheres which I further refined. Then I sculpted the body pieces with joint openings to align around these spheres and refined each piece (especially the knees and elbows) little by little to make sure all the openings fit with precision and grace. Some of the refining, sanding, polishing were done after I had baked the clay until it was hard so I could achieve finer detail without the clay moving around.

3. Making plaster molds for slip casting

This was one of the more trying stages for me. It was a long, messy, and painstaking process. It took me quite some time to conjure enough courage to start with the mold making process, not only because it seemed difficult but because plaster dust had a tendency to take over entire spaces and the preparation and clean up time were significant. I tried several types of plaster and had to resolve many issues before making any sufficient progress. In designing the molds, I spend hours, days, weeks figuring out and trying different ways of partitioning them to fit my needs. I poured over online tutorials on how to make molds but they didn't always work for me or was not applicable, so I spent many days and nights thinking/ drawing diagrams for how the molds will look to reduce the seam lines and also to salvage my prototype.

4. Pouring and firing

After the porcelain slip is carefully poured into the plaster molds, I wait until they are ready to be drained. After which I wait for the clay to loosen before carefully removing the greenware from the molds. When the greenware is leather hard I completely re-sculpt the face/head - the contours of the face, the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, re-define the fingers, toes, give detail to the hands and feet, refine the knees, elbows, and bascially every greenware piece, cut the joint openings and holes, and begin cleaning the seam lines. This is a very time consuming process and I have to be extremely careful and gentle in handling them. Sometimes I wait a few days for the clay to be bone dry and then continue to meticulously clean and polish all pieces before they can be fired to a soft bisque, after which they are still further refined, cleaned, polished, and perfected before the bisque firing to become gorgeous, strong, semi-translucent porcelain.

5. Final polishing and china painting

After firing to maturity, the porcelain pieces are polished to silky smoothness and then ready to be painted. China painting requires a great deal of patience and visualization. I first decide how I want the face to ultimately look and then recreate that image and expression one layer/firing at a time. It takes at a minimum of 5 layers and firings to create depth, realism, and beautiful colors. Sometimes it takes more. The skillfulness of the china painting brings out the true beauty and individuality of the sculpt. The best part about china painting is that each time I open the kiln it is (usually) a beautiful and wonderful surprise.

6. Assembling using leather, steel, and springs

After all the pieces have been painted and some fired several times, they are ready to be assembled. I have subjected the porcelain pieces to a series of tests and I am amazed at how strong they are and the amount of tension and handling they can endure, although I always recommend handling porcelain with care because impact with other hard objects will cause it to fracture. Other than that they can put up with a LOT of regular handling, dressing/undressing, and posing. I use leather to line all joint openings so the movement is smooth and allow a wide range of motions. I use industrial steel springs and metal for the articulation mechanism of the doll so that it is very durable. I measure and cut all metal extensions to the right length to achieve the tension strength I need, then assemble them within each porcelain piece.

7. Wig making

Each wig is individually made to fit the porcelain head perfectly. I use the best quality alpaca hair, which means it is soft, can be styled by using just water, and gives the texture and appearance of real hair but on a 14in doll scale. Simply gorgeous! But alpaca hair is not the easiest to work with. I comb through small sections of hair, and use glue to secure them, wait for them to dry, and then glue them onto the wig cap I made in pieces and by sections, from bottom to top. Then I style the wig with water and string/beads.

8. Designing the costume and jewelry

Because each TreasureDoll embodies a particular character from a certain time/period, story, and/or place, its costume is very specific and reflects the fashions befitting that time period or place, while at the same time includes many of my own interpretations, visions, and designs for the piece. Sometimes I create my own sewing patterns, and other times I do not use patterns at all. Since each costume is unique and complex, both in style, design, and the variety of fabrics and materials involved, I often find that I work better when creating them with original visions and ideas for how they should look. Each costume is mostly sewn by hand (because of their small size and the flexibility hand-sewing allows) and entirely hand-embroidered. I spend a great deal of time exploring different types of fabrics, and my favorites include silks, satins, light cottons, and laces, and some vintage fabrics. I have always loved beautiful natural colors and depth, and try to bring them into my designs through the use multiple layers of fabric, laces, crystals, glass beads, and metals.